The Cat in the Hat and Grandmother Goose greeted children at El Rio’s Congress Clinic on a Friday afternoon in late February. Tables were set up for cookie decorating, coloring and puzzles. But more important, were the tables piled high with books.
More than 250 of El Rio Community Health Center’s young patients received books at the event, thanks to their partnership with a national literacy organization.
Reach Out And Read (ROAR), a Literacy Connects organization, partners with many of El Rio Community Health Center’s clinics to provide books for pediatric patients. Last year, the organization gave away over 35,000 books to children ages six months to five years old.
Through ROAR, a child receives a new book at every “well child” visit, including immunizations. El Rio doctors alone gave away 12,000 books to children at their checkups last year.
If a child attends all of their recommended visits and vaccinations, by the time they are two years old they will have six books. Followed by annual visits, the books start to add up.
“By the time the children are 5 years old, they have a little library of ten or so books,” El Rio’s ROAR volunteer coordinator Tami Arthur said.
ROAR is a national program that distributes upwards of four million books per year to the 10,000 participating clinics. Southern Arizona’s ROAR program serves more than 43,000 children at a variety of locations, including El Rio’s six participating clinics. The program was started in 1990 and has been at El Rio since 2000.
Arthur said that for the March event, First Book, a non-profit literacy organization, donated more than 1,000 books. First Book addresses literacy by providing children with access to books. The organization connects community programs that serve low-income children with book publishers for book donations.
Members from Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women chapter from the University of Arizona also volunteered, for the first time, to distribute books and decorate cookies with the children.
“Our motto is read, lead, achieve,” Marilyn Olander, president of Pi Beta Phi’s Tucson Alumnae Club, said. The Fraternity’s national philanthropy is literacy. “You can’t function as a citizen in society if you can’t read,” she said.
Klaire Pirtle, dressed as Grandmother Goose, took pictures with children and directed families to age-appropriate books for their children.
“Some of these children may have never had a book before,” Pirtle, a retired teacher and principal, said.
Laura Valdez, who has four children of her own, picked up books for her grandchildren. Valdez said her family has received services from El Rio for more than 23 years.
“They’re very helpful,” she said about the reading initiatives. “It helps kids go out and read.”
The children were allowed to take as many as three books at the event.
“I think it’s great, it saves me a buck or two,” Jorge Miranda said. “My daughter’s school just had a book fair and I spent about $6 or $7 per book.”
Miranda was at the clinic to pick up medications with his 8-year-old daughter and niece, Francesca and Juliana. When choosing books, he told the girls to get something they would actually read.
According to Literacy Connects, an umbrella of five literacy organizations in Tucson, up to 60 percent of fourth grade students in Pima County are currently reading below grade level. The national average is 40 percent.
Students who lack the ability to read at grade level end up falling so far behind that they are more likely to drop out of school. The Arizona Department of Education reported 18,200 students dropped out in the 2012-2013 school year. This dropout rate includes grades seventh through twelfth.
In January of 2013, the U.S. Department of Education reported Arizona had the highest high school dropout rate, 7.8 percent, in the country. The data used in the latest report was for the 2009-2010 school year.
The first three years of life are crucial in developing literacy and early language learning. A child’s earliest experiences with books and storytelling are closely linked to their lifelong ability to read and write.
(Photo by Caitlin Schmidt)
(Photo by Caitlin Schmidt)
Dr. Andrew Arthur, Associate Medical Director of Pediatrics at El Rio and ROAR director, said pediatricians are trained to introduce children to the world of books for the first time.
“This has been an extremely successful program in terms of providers, patients and parents of patients like it,” Arthur said.
Since language and social development, including reading, is already something pediatricians discuss with patients and their families at visits, this program is a natural fit, he said.
“At the start of a visit, it’s a good icebreaker to hand a book to a smiling, appreciative child,” Arthur said. “It starts the conversation in a positive way.”
ROAR is a three-step program. The first step is discussing language and social development with parents, Arthur said. The second is giving children age-appropriate books at their visits and the third step involves the volunteer readers who are in the pediatric waiting areas.
“Unfortunately, that’s the component that often falls apart in most clinics,” he said. With 35,000 pediatric patients seen at six clinics, it’s difficult to ensure that there are enough readers and that readers are present all the time.
“We encourage the children to take and return the books, pass them along to friends,” Dr. Arthur said. “If we get back a copy of ‘Goodnight Moon’ that’s too worn out to be read anymore, that’s a good thing.”
The program is easy to sustain and is inexpensive, especially compared to the community cost of language or speech delays for a child.
“If a couple fewer kids at each school don’t need speech therapy, the cost savings is huge,” Dr. Arthur said.
The program makes the biggest impact in mid to low-income households for children who might not have access to libraries, bookstores or Internet access.
El Rio has a vested interest in literacy. Adults with a low literacy level are less likely to understand health conditions, especially long term problems such as blood pressure and blood sugar, and less likely to seek and follow up with treatment.
The El Rio foundation provides the funding for ROAR, who purchases its books from whomever can offer the best price.
“Children who read are more likely to succeed in and finish school, have good self-esteem and get a job,” Arthur said. “An increased vocabulary gives children the tools to be able to successfully interact with the world.”
For all Tucson ROAR locations, visit:
VOLUNTEER CONTACT INFORMATION
Volunteer readers offer 2-3 hours per month reading to kids at various El Rio pediatric clinic sites. Contact Tami Arthur at (520) 449-3339.)